Greece 2012

Legislative elections were held in Greece on May 6, 2012. All 300 members of Greece’s unicameral legislature, the Vouli ton Ellinon, were up for reelection. Toying around with Greek electoral law is a favourite of both main political parties in Greece, who have changed the electoral law – loosely based on proportional representation – countless times over the year. There is a 3% threshold for representation in Parliament, and seats are distributed to 56 electoral constituencies (48 of which are multi-member) through arcane rules. The most important aspect of Greek electoral law, however, is the “majority bonus”, which awards – beginning this year – 50 seats to the party which wins the most votes. In the last election, 40 seats were awarded to the largest party, this election is the first to be fought on a 2007 reform of the electoral law which made it even easier for a party to win an absolute majority – with 39% instead of 41-42%. The remainder of the seats will be distributed proportionally to parties who have won over 3% of the vote on the basis of valid votes and excluding votes cast for parties which did not meet the threshold. Voting is compulsory in Greece but the law is not strictly enforced, but turnout remains high at over 70%.

The evocation of ‘Greece’ in modern parlance no longer brings up beautiful islands or the Acropolis, rather it brings up a country at grips with a huge financial and economic crisis which has left Greece and its economy in ruins: a debt at over 160% of the GDP, an economy which shrunk by over 6% in 2011, a huge budgetary deficit, an unemployment rate at nearly 20%. The survival of the Eurozone country’s economy seems increasingly dependent on the good graces of the IMF and the EU (Germany in particular) which in return for their successive bailouts have imposed extremely stringent austerity measures which Greeks have found unpalatable and which has unnerved most of the traditional Greek political class.

Five austerity packages have been implemented by the government since 2010, entailing major wage cuts, public sector job loses, tax increases, spending cuts, pensions cuts and privatizations. Still unable to pay its bills, Athens was forced to ask for a bailout from the EU and IMF. In October 2011, the single-party Socialist government of Prime Minister George Papandreou staged a poorly managed and amateurish political gamble by announcing intentions to hold a referendum over the second bailout deal, which had just been agreed upon. Finally, in November 2011, Papandreou resigned and was replaced by a “technical” government led by Greek economist Lucas Papademos who formed a caretaker coalition government charged with implementing the second bailout and holding new elections. Papademos’ coalition government, largely made up of Socialists, received the support of the main opposition force – the conservative New Democracy (ND) in return for snap elections, which were called in April 2012.

Since 1974, Greek politics have been dominated by two major parties: the left-wing Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) and the conservative New Democracy (ND).

PASOK, unlike most of its colleagues in the PES, has little roots in any socialist, trade unionist or Marxist tradition. Rather, it is a fairly ‘artificial’ party founded in 1974 around the personality of its founder, Andreas Papandreou, and heir more to the liberal-nationalist and republican Venizelist tradition than to any socialist or left-wing tradition. Indeed, Andreas Papandreou’s father, George Papandreou Sr, had served as a liberal (centrist or Venizelist) Prime Minister in the 1960s prior to the military coup. The 1974 plebiscite which abolished the Greek monarchy in the process removed Venizelism’s last structuring raison-d’être (republicanism) and PASOK became the heir to Greece’s liberal-nationalist tradition which had been central to its politics since World War I. Papandreou himself could still be rightfully described as a socialist, at any rate his government – in power between 1981 and 1989 – implemented fairly left-wing policies including wealth redistribution measures, wage and pension increases, labour law reforms (favourable to employees) and the introduction of a comprehensive welfare system including extended health care coverage. His policies led to the construction of a large and economically dominant public sector, which has distributed generous pensions, benefits and high wages to its employees.

Papandreou returned to power in 1993 after being acquitted in a large corruption scandal which had sunk PASOK in the late 1980s. Following his resignation in 1996, the party moved away from the its older nationalist (notably on the Macedonian issue), eurosceptic and socialist inklings towards consensual centrism. Under the leadership of Costas Simitis, who governed the country between 1996 and 2004, PASOK slowly ‘modernized’ but internally the party became increasingly fractured between a more reformist and centrist leadership and an old guard of Papandreou confidantes and old timers who remained resistant towards modernization or any major economic reforms as the country’s debt and deficit – concealed by successive governments – grew.

In 2009, PASOK, led since 2004 by Andreas’ son, George Papandreou, returned to power. In the wake of the economic crisis and the successive austerity measures it was forced to implement starting in 2010, the party’s popularity started taking a nosedive. It initially resisted fairly well in the 2010 local elections, but when the country came to the brink, PASOK’s support collapsed in the face of continued social and labour unrest in opposition to Papandreou’s austerity measures. Following his resignation in 2011, he also quit PASOK’s leadership and was replaced by his old rival and finance minister Evangelos Venizelos (no familial links to the old Venizelos). Venizelos had been defeated by Papandreou in a 2007 leadership review, but he had forced Papandreou to appoint him as finance minister lest he fancied losing the support of Venizelos’ faction.

New Democracy (ND), Greece’s main conservative party, was founded by Konstantinos Karamanlis, the old right-wing politics of the 1960s who had been at the forefront of the Greek transition to democracy (the metapolitefsi) in 1974. Even though he himself at been at the helm of a fairly conservative (in the literal sense of the word!) party in the 1960s, Karamanlis intended for ND to be a more modern and progressive centre-right party which could reconcile old Greek conservative-monarchism with some remnants of the liberal-nationalist tradition. Karamanlis and ND dominated the first years of the transition, in a way quite reminiscent of the UCD in Spain (though without its rapid collapse shortly thereafter). The party briefly regained power in 1989 and formed a shaky majority government led by the old rival of the Papandreou clan, former liberal Constantine Mitsotakis. The party lost power in 1993 but returned to power in 2004, led by Karamanlis’ son, Kostas Karamanlis.

ND was reelected in 2007 but handily defeated in 2009, Kostas Karamanlis went into hiding shortly thereafter. For good reason. His government has generally been regarded as willfully incompetent and inept in handling the increasingly troubled Greek economy following the 2004 Olympics, and continued the tradition of concealing large debts and deficits.

In opposition since 2009, ND has been led by Antonis Samaras, a longtime fixture of cabinets and right-wing politics who had played a major role in toppling Mitsotakis in 1993 – Samaras, then foreign minister, took a hard stance on the Macedonian issue and founded his own party (Political Spring), only rejoining ND in 2004. Faced with the economic crisis, Samaras sought to draw political gains from opposing the bailouts and austerity packages, taking an attitude which was if not irresponsible then certainly quite hypocritical. He has, at times, attempted to position himself and ND as quasi-‘nationalist’ of the EU-IMF bailouts.

The Greek left – that is, the “historic left”, has been fractured for decades. The largest party of the left has tended to be the Communist Party (KKE), Greece’s oldest party which had been on the losing side of the civil war in the late 1940s and was banned until 1974. During the post-war era, the Greek left was organized politically as the United Democratic Left (EDA), which was widely perceived and thus feared by the Palace and the political establishment as being a front for the KKE. The KKE underwent a pretty significant split in 1968, with its more reformist and anti-Moscow members founding the KKE-Interior, transforming the remaining KKE into an old-style hardline pro-Soviet party.

The KKE and its 1968 splitoffs have been bitter rivals since then, despite a short-lived left-wing coalition between 1989 and 1991. KKE is one of the last remaining truly hardline communist parties in Europe (one could say ‘Stalinist’), which acts as if the Soviet Union still existed and certainly retains the old Marxist rhetoric. Its arcane communiques about the proletariat, the need for Revolution and the corruption of the bourgeois capitalist-imperialist order make for great reading (they are published in English) if nothing else. Politically, the KKE has refused to partake in governments at the national level and maintains a stridently anti-Euro and Eurosceptic line. It views the economic crisis as a vindication of what it has always preached, and has banked on the imminent collapse of the bourgeois state and the impeding revolution.

The KKE’s deadly rival is the Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA), a coalition which is often confused with Synaspismos, the largest party in the coalition. Synaspismos itself was formed in 1989 as an alliance of the Stalinist KKE and the eurocommunist KKE-Interior. Following the KKE descending further into its Marxist rhetoric of class struggle, the hardliners purged moderates and shut the door on the idea of Synaspismos as a broad alliance of the non-PASOK left. Since then, Synaspismos, now integrated into SYRIZA, has moved along not without difficulty, taking the appearance of a more pragmatic and reasonable but still rather ideologically left-wing party in opposition to the KKE. Its electoral record has been mixed, usually hovering a bit above or below 5%.

The existence of two parties – KKE and SYRIZA – which give the superficial appearance of ideological proximity – has often raised the question of why the two parties do not cooperate. In practice, the two parties hate each other with a passion unequaled. KKE seems to hate SYRIZA more than even the “fascists”, the conservatives or the social democrats; branding SYRIZA as “opportunists” and never missing an opportunity to call them a bourgeois front.

Synaspismos (or SYRIZA, whatever) split in 2010 when Fotis Kouvelis’ social democratic and moderate ‘renewal’ minority faction quit the party to form the Democratic Left (DIMAR). SYRIZA, under the leadership of Alexis Tsipras, had been shifting leftwards and adopting a European policy increasingly similar to the KKE’s dogma. Kouvelis and DIMAR have been fairly vague in their positioning, but they are clearly pro-European in theory. Even if they oppose the austerity measures and seek a renegotiation of the bailout deals, it is opposed to burning all bridges and, unlike the KKE, does not advocate leaving the Eurozone, lest as a last resort.

The far-right Popular Orthodox Alarm (LAOS) was represented in Papademos’ caretaker coalition until it left the coalition in 2012 out of opposition to the bailout measures. LAOS entered Parliament in 2007 and did well in the 2009 elections. Originally LAOS took a fairly Orthodox Christian political orientation, but shifted towards nationalism and anti-immigration rhetoric. Though taking heed to moderate the neo-fascist inclinations of some of its members, which included until this year Makis “the hammer” Voridis (who is now a ND member), the party has not steered clear of any controversies. It still has clear anti-Semitic positions: its leader, Georgios Karatzaferis, is a notorious Holocaust denier and has a knack for talking about a Jewish conspiracy.

However, LAOS’ participation in government has seemingly crippled it significantly. The sad irony of the whole situation is that, in the process, LAOS has become an innocuous moderate party in contrast to what has succeeded it: Golden Dawn (XA). XA, led by Nikolaos Michaloliakos, has been around for ages now but it had never been electorally significant until 2010 or so when  Michaloliakos won a seat in Athens’ city council. XA is rather clearly and almost openly a neo-Nazi party, which maintains its own paramilitary force which is active in parts of Athens and has been dangerous for years as it beats up immigrants and left-wingers. The group has gained prominence and support as the issue of immigration becomes a major explosive issue in Greek politics, especially during the economic crisis.

The economic crisis has weakened the main parties and led to a series of splits as members of both PASOK and ND left or were expelled from their parties for opposing their parties’ positions on the successive austerity packages. The earliest such split took place in late 2010 when former ND cabinet minister and defeated leadership contender Dora Bakoyannis was expelled from ND for voting in favour of the first EU-IMF bailout loan. She founder her own party, the liberal Democratic Alliance (DISY), which calls for major structural reforms in the Greek economy including a flat tax and reducing the size of government. It has had limited appeal, perhaps understandably because its economic liberalism do not seem to be attractive to voters in such conditions. In 2012, ND suffered another split when about 10 of its members quit the party for voting against the Papademos cabinet, forming a new party called Independent Greeks (ANEL). ANEL is a populist right-wing nationalist party which opposes austerity and claims that Greece is the victim of an international conspiracy. It has allied with the anti-austerity PASOK splitoff party named ‘Panhellenic Citizens Chariot’. Other PASOK splitoffs include Social Agreement, led by two former cabinet ministers; the Unitary Movement (allied with SYRIZA) and Free Citizens (allied with DIMAR).

The two main parties, ND and PASOK, have collapsed and lost a good deal of legitimacy with the economic crisis. A current of opposition to the two deadly rivals of Greek politics, which are ultimately quite similar, was emerging before all hell broke loose, but the crisis sped things up. Both parties are perceived as irresponsible and both have been equally blamed for either causing the crisis or poorly handling the crisis. The austerity measures have been very unpopular, sparking social and labour unrest in Greece. Chronic political corruption, an entrenched system of crony capitalism and the lack of a structured and strong civil society has served to weaken Greece since 2009, leading to an increase in radical anti-system populist responses.

PASOK has been the party which has suffered the most, collapsing to a low of 8% support in polls but rebounding a bit since Venizelos became the party’s leader. The only thing PASOK has going for it at this point in time is a modicum of traditional loyal support and the traditional division and limited appeal of its left-wing rivals. Given the KKE’s adamant refusal to participate in any coalition government and the high conditions placed on such cabinet participation by SYRIZA and even DIMAR, PASOK can still play the card of being the ‘reasonable’ guys who will be willing to participate in government. The IMF has been keen on letting it be known that it considers PASOK and ND as the only reasonable party with which it could feasibly work. A common criticism of the parties to PASOK’s left has been that it has always struggled to come up with comprehensive, pragmatic and reasonable policies. DIMAR has accused SYRIZA of playing an irresponsible populist game, but it too has struggled to come up with policies and ideas which are deemed comprehensive or clear by the mainstream.

ND, overall, retained the edge throughout the campaign. But it too is in poor shape, polling much lower than what it won in 2009 (which was then considered a very bad result) and falling victim to the division of the right. ND’s leader Antonis Samaras apparently spent the entire campaign on another planet, insisting that voters give him an absolute majority and saying countless times that he was not interested in coalitions and wanted to govern alone. His party waffled its way around the economic crisis, and its proposals do not seem extremely credible: vague rhetoric about renegotiating bailout conditions, stopping salary cuts, increasing pensions, increasing government support for children and families and cutting taxes. It plans to find this new revenue by cutting down on waste and stepping up privatizations.

Besides the economy, immigration has become the other big issue in this campaign. XA’s emergence as a potential parliamentary force has seemingly led the main parties, ND first and foremost, to tack hard to the right on the issue of immigration. Even PASOK has turned right on immigration, announcing the creation of a closed detention centre for illegal immigrants. At the same time, however, Venizelos pleaded voters not to send the neo-Nazi XA to Parliament.

Turnout was 65.10%, which is an all time low (after already having hit a low in 2009) which stands about 10% below the 75% turnout seen in past ‘normal’ elections. Apparently the economic crisis has not only turned people away from the two main parties, but also from politics and elections as a whole. 2.36% of votes were invalid or blank. The results were as follows:

ND 18.85% (-14.62%) winning 108 seats (+17)
SYRIZA 16.78% (+12.18%) winning 52 seats (+39)
PASOK 13.18% (-30.74%) winning 41 seats (-119)
ANEL 10.60% (+10.6%) winning 33 seats (+33)
KKE 8.48% (+0.94%) winning 26 seats (+5)
XA 6.97% (+6.68%) winning 21 seats (+21)
DIMAR 6.11% (+6.11%) winning 19 seats (+19)
(total below threshold: 19.03%)
Greens 2.93% (+0.4%) winning 0 seats (nc)
LAOS 2.9% (-2.73%) winning 0 seats (-15)
DISY 2.55% (+2.55%) winning 0 seats (nc)
DX! 2.15% (+2.15%) winning 0 seats (nc)
Drasi 1.8% (+1.8%) winning 0 seats (nc)
ANTARSYA 1.19% (+0.83%) winning 0 seats (nc)
All others under 1% 5.43% winning 0 seats (nc)

Looking for map? Hardly anything can beat The Guardian in this case.

If anybody doubted that three years is a very long time in politics, their doubts were crushed by Greek voters on May 6. In 2009, the Greek elections were fairly normal. Sure, the incumbent ND lost by a big margin and the opposition PASOK won an absolute majority with a comfortable margin, but none of the small parties (KKE, SYRIZA or LAOS) did exceptionally well. Furthermore, both ND and PASOK, which have dominated Greek politics and government since 1974, retained the support of well over three-quarters of Greek voters (though their combined share of the vote hit a low point compared to previous years at ‘only’ 77.4%).

But that was before Greece fell victim to one of the largest economic crises any single country has ever experienced since the Great Depression. Regardless of the causes of the crisis or the responsibility of past Greek governments and Greek citizens in this crisis, the results were extremely negative and dire for Greece: a GDP which contracted by over 6%, rising unemployment, a humongous public debt, social and labour unrest, a country living at the mercy of international organizations and Germany, deep austerity measures across the board and – especially relevant in our case – a total and utter loss of political legitimacy by the twin enemies of Greek politics.

PASOK and ND had already been losing legitimacy with voters prior to 2010, because PASOK’s shift to the left in its post-Papandreou era moved it closer to ND. Thus, in the end, despite both parties sharing a profound dislike of one another, they were in practice fairly similar: fairly inoffensive centrist parties of government who closed their eyes to crises to please everybody when things were looking up, but which were both like deer in the headlights when the bad stuff came along.

PASOK certainly lost any remnants of legitimacy on the left as the main socialist party in the country when the Papandreou cabinet (2009-2011) implemented austerity medicine so tough that even the most enthusiastic of small government right-wingers would shirk away from implementing in normal conditions. These were not normal conditions, but it didn’t matter a lot to Greek voters who were hit firsthand by the negative repercussions of austerity on their wages, pensions, social benefits, standard of living, jobs and income. PASOK had held up relatively strongly up until the fall of 2010 (PASOK did fairly well in local and regional elections that fall), but it collapsed at a dizzying pace as Greece hit rock-bottom in 2011.

At the same time, ND was also shedding support, though at a less rapid pace. Unlike the PP in Spain, which was the main beneficiary of the PSOE’s collapse in 2010-2011, ND never really benefited much from PASOK’s descent into hell. Until November 2011, its status as an opposition party both allowed it to act less pragmatically (more irresponsibly?) and lose less legitimacy and support than PASOK. Up until that point, it stood only a bit below its 2009 result. Its unenthusiastic transformation into a coalition member of the Papademos interim cabinet, which forced it to give up the luxury of opposition and to support austerity and bailouts, led to its division and a collapse which, although not as stark as PASOK’s, was still very pronounced.

Ultimately, ND emerged as the largest party – but only by a hair and with a result which is far below its 2009 result (which, by ‘normal’ standards had been terrible!). While its popular vote is terrible, the nature of Greece’s electoral system (which, as far as I’m concerned, makes a farce of PR) has allowed it hold about 36% of the seats in Parliament (on less than 19% of the vote no less). Calling ND’s result a victory – even a Pyrrhic victory – is wrong. Despite ‘winning’, it is one of the main losers of this election. It lost 14.6% support compared to 2009, but the rigged electoral system allowed it to actually emerge with a larger caucus.

ND leader Antonis Samaras’ weird optimism about the Greek economy (with his proposals about stopping wage cuts, investing more for families and pensions and so forth) did not, unsurprisingly, convince voters. Neither did what some have called his ‘Enda Kenny strategy’ of promising to renegotiate the country’s obligations towards the EU-IMF. His whole campaign looked like the desperate campaign of a man who is completely oblivious to his party (and his country’s) true state and who acts as if nothing happened.

In reality, voters held both ND and PASOK responsible for the situation. ND hasn’t gotten rave reviews either at home or abroad for its handling of the pre-collapse economy when it was in power between 2004 and 2009 – in fact, the mere fact of Kostas Karamanlis calling snap elections in 2009 just gave the impression that he wanted to lose the election (which was never in much doubt) and wash himself and ND off of the responsibility for the collapsing economy. Its performance between 2009 and 2011 in opposition, furthermore, was pretty horrible and as a party it hardly looked credible with its waffling over the issues at stake.

The incumbent governing party – which won an absolute majority in 2009 – finished in third, taking in a result which is its worst result in its history (in 1974, with 13.6%, it had done marginally better). While its initial handling of the situation in 2009-2010 did not earn it the ire of voters, as noted above, when the Greek economy continued to collapse and on top of that became dependent on foreign bailouts and imposed austerity, PASOK collapsed alongside the economy. It basically lost all credibility and legitimacy, in the eyes of voters and then in the eyes of foreign leaders (with the ill-advised referendum stunt last fall), to handle the economic situation.

A good case could be made that as a left-wing party, it was due to suffer more heavily from heavy austerity measures than a right-wing party would have. Simply put, the traditional bases of left-wing parties (working class, low income earners, public servants) are usually those who are the most heavily affected by austerity policies. PASOK’s electoral base, like that of any other left-wing party in the world, is more diverse than just those core constituencies, but those traditionally left-leaning voters certainly constituted a good part of PASOK’s base, as far as I know. While this theory has not, to my knowledge, been backed up with facts and analysis (though I would love to do so), it is an interesting hypothesis to theorize about.

PASOK admitted that it made mistakes in the past three years and it entered the fight with a political leader who, while quite unpopular in his own right, is less damaged goods than Papandreou was. It was, obviously, not enough to stop the profuse bleeding which PASOK suffered. It totally lost its left, and it collapsed to a rock-solid core. It lost the most of any party, collapsing a spectacular 30.7% compared to 2009 and losing well over one hundred seats in the Greek Parliament.

On the left, PASOK, either temporarily or permanently, has been replaced by SYRIZA. Prior to the economic crisis (and even then), SYRIZA had always struggled to break out of its small core electorate (around 5-7% at most) of ‘modern’ radical left-wingers (as opposed to the paleocommunists of the KKE). It had a very urban electorate with a small clientele similar to those who vote for similar political parties (youths, somewhat cosmopolitan urbanites and so forth) in Europe. This year, SYRIZA managed to establish itself as the most credible and legitimate voice of the anti-austerity left. It clearly extended its base into left-leaning working-class areas where it had not been as popular in the past, especially in the industrial hinterland surrounding Athens and the Piraeus.

Compared to DIMAR, whose stance on the bailout is unclear, SYRIZA had a clear and unambiguous stance in opposition to the bailout and austerity. Compared to the KKE, SYRIZA was not only an attractive protest option but it was also a credible anti-austerity choice (for left-wing voters) because SYRIZA clearly seeks to govern, unlike the KKE which prefers to act like clowns in opposition. It also as at its helm a confident, combative and charismatic young leader, Alexis Tsipras. On the other hand, the KKE’s Aleka Papariga has the appearance of a Stalinist drone straight out of the Kremlin.

DIMAR clearly aimed to gain the support of PASOK voters who had a falling out with their party and who were looking for a fairly pragmatic and moderate option to their left. While it likely did so in part, it was unable to replace PASOK as the main left-wing party and its result likely falls far short of initial expectations. It is quite possible that it was hurt significantly by its more ambiguous stance on the bailout and related debt issues. It is anti-austerity, but it does not have a clear attitude towards the Eurozone, the European Union or what attitude the country should adopt against the EU-IMF bailouts. The climate in Greece is radical, pushing towards the extremes on both sides. In this case, the centrist parties (PASOK, ND) but also more open-ended moderates (such as DIMAR) were left out in the dark by voters. Voters instead preferred radical alternatives on both left and right, who were uncompromising in their opposition to austerity and bailouts and spoke forcefully against either “the banksters” or other groups.

If this is true, why, then, did the KKE not do all that well? The Communists won a very mediocre 8.5% of the vote, when polling in the past months had them hitting highs at nearly 14% but often averaging in the 9-10% range. It had a radical anti-austerity, anti-bailout and anti-Euro message seemingly tailored out to respond to the grassroots anger. The KKE’s problem is that its rhetoric, policies and style remains deeply bedded in some sort of Stalinist paleocommunism straight out of the 1950s. In the 2010 local elections, it did well, in part, because it could be an attractive protest vote for some left-wing voters. However, this year’s vote was not only the case of a lot of people voting with their middle fingers but also a large share of voters whose vote was certainly a protest against austerity but also reflected a real desire to elect a credible and unambiguously anti-austerity government.

True to its style, the KKE spent the whole campaign saying that it would not participate in a government and talked in traditional Pravda blabber about the revolution and a workers’ struggle against the opportunists, bourgeois and capitalists. The KKE has a very loyal core electorate, which almost lives and breathes by the KKE’s verbose statements and is resentful of all other parties. It is not surprising that a party like the KKE, which is very archaic in everything its does, would have a solid base of voters (7-8%) but would struggle to appeal to a large swathe of swing left-wing voters in such a high-stakes general election.

Simply put, SYRIZA was a far more credible and reasonable option for a voter hungry for a fiery anti-austerity platform. SYRIZA not only provided that, but, they also acted as if they were ready to take the responsibility of governing and appeared far more credible than the KKE. If this had been fought in more normal circumstances – that is, a fairly bad economy, but not a country on the verge of collapse, and with the traditional parties holding most of their ground – I would wager that the KKE could have done better because of ‘protest voters’ who did not want to vote for the traditional parties which would have won by a ‘normal’ margin like in the past. This was not a normal election, at all. The traditional parties collapsed, and the result was not just traditional low-stakes protest voting by people who wanted to vent their anger by voting for a party which can’t win, but rather ‘serious’ voting with the aim of protesting austerity and the country’s sad economic situation by voting for at least half-credible parties. How could the KKE have been considered a credible and ‘useful’ option for a left-wing opponent of austerity when the party announced before the election that it would not be in any coalition?

The result was that SYRIZA emerged, by far, as the top left-wing anti-austerity party; while the KKE fell flat on its face, holding on to its core base of voters but nothing more. Of course, the KKE will refuse to read the tea leaves for the umpteenth time and insist that they did everything correctly but the media, financial puppet-masters and other parties all tricked their voters into not voting for them. As in 2009, it will “get in contact” with those voters, which for them usually means stepping up the Stalinism.

Anti-austerity wasn’t just a left-wing thing. The party which placed fourth didn’t even exist until February of this year. The Independent Greeks (ANEL) are a right-wing, populist and nationalist party which was founded by anti-austerity ND dissidents. The party took considerable support from ND after the main right-wing party was compelled into abandoning the luxuries of opposition for the bitter realities of government. All the nationalist, conservative and anti-austerity support which had stuck with ND as it was the opposition party to a collapsing PASOK fled to ANEL.

The party probably benefited very much from the personality of its leader, Panos Kammenos, a fiery populist and media-savvy charismatic rabble-rouser. Kammenos and ANEL played on a mix of right-wing populism, fiery opposition to austerity but also on nationalist and anti-German sentiments. Critics say that he is thin on substance, which is probably true, but he benefited from deep-seated anger on the right, which mixes old nationalist rhetoric with modern anti-German sentiments and more contemporary populist, anti-establishment conservatism expressed through opposition to austerity and foreign bailouts.

Most of ND’s losses between 2009 and 2012 were probably to ANEL’s benefit, but ND did not lose only to ANEL. Like almost all other parties, it must have lost a bit to the new kids on the block – and they’re not exactly nice kids. Chrysi Avgi (Golden Dawn, or XA) made a spectacular eruption into Greek politics and Parliament by winning 7% of the vote and 21 seats. XA, founded by supporters of the Colonel’s Junta, has been around for ages but until very recently it was physically dangerous (its gangs are notorious for beating up leftists and immigrants) but politically irrelevant. It won about 0.3% of the vote in the 2009 election, and was about as electorally relevant as other neo-Nazi or radical far-right nationalist groups in Europe.

It is trendy to heap the label ‘Nazis’ on just about any type of party which one personally finds even remotely distasteful. It is even trendier to call the bulk of the European far-right, from the FN to the PVV, a bunch of Nazis. In those cases, such a label is intellectually dishonest. In the case of XA, it is not. XA are literally Nazis and they don’t exactly go to great lengths to downplay their national-socialist inklings. XA’s leader Nikolaos Michaloliakos likes to do Nazi salutes. XA’s slogan was a vow to rid ‘the land of filth’ (predictably, the immigrants). On election night, Michaloliakos, surrounded by strong-armed neo-Nazi thugs, gave a speech which many found worryingly Hitler-esque.

Immigration has long been a political issue in Greece, but most mainstream politicians shied away from touching too much on it. The rise of criminality associated with the economic crisis and no slowdown in the flow of immigrants (from Turkey, Albania, Africa or Asia) combined to make immigration the second most important issue behind the economy. For many voters, in fact, the two issues were interrelated. Immigrants are viewed either as outright criminals or at best leeches that steal jobs from native Greeks or live off the toil of hard-working native Greeks. Even though, in reality, immigrants had little to do with Greece’s economic situation, they represent a perfect scapegoat in these dangerous times of political radicalization and socio-economic despair.

XA had a number of factors going for it in this election. Firstly, the general political climate is one of radicalization on both left and right. The economic crisis, delegitimizing the two main parties, combined with endemic political corruption and the lack of a strong civil society has created a perfect breeding ground for far-right (and far-left) movements. XA, despite its Nazi fanboyism, was able to appeal to radicalized voters with a fiery populist message and grand promises to defend Greece and rid it of all the ‘filth’ which were, they claimed, responsible for the crisis. Secondly, the main far-right party – LAOS – which had done well in 2009 and even better in 2010, took a major tumble after it entered the Papademos cabinet (an austerity government) in November 2011. LAOS’s ill-advised decision meant that it no longer appeared as a credible and legitimate right-populist protest party. Even LAOS’s later decision to pull out of the cabinet came too late to stop the bleeding. ANEL but also XA proved attractive options for those who had backed LAOS as the right-wing, populist and nationalist option. If LAOS had not joined cabinet in 2011, it would likely have done very well in this election and limited XA’s gains. Instead, it lost all seats and won only 2.9% of the vote.

XA also have benefited from a fairly strong grassroots base. Its vigilante (black shirts, for opponents) groups have gained a presence in a lot of urban areas in Attica where locals often find them a more efficient (perhaps more ‘efficient’ in terms of punishments, if you get my gist) force than the actual police. Locals who have been robbed or attacked often rush to XA’s vigilantes and are more than pleased when the assailant is beaten up by XA’s gangs. XA has been physically dangerous for years, as mentioned above, but its shock-and-awe actions had not ever translated into heaps of votes. This year, it did. Furthermore, in a way reminiscent of the Salafists in Egypt, XA has developed a benevolent image in some neighborhoods by dropping off food to poor families or escorting elderly locals to bank ATMs.

This year, a vote for XA is probably not a massive vote of adherence to XA’s neo-Nazi ideas but rather an ephemeral radical anti-system protest vote. At least, we can hope that it does not signal an evolution of politics in the footsteps of Weimar Germany after 1930. To be an optimist in a sea of pessimists, I tend to find the talk about the imminent risk of civil war or military coup in Greece to be fairly ridiculous.

Below the threshold, the Greens increased their support a bit vis-à-vis 2009 (where they had barely missed out) but ultimately fell short of meeting the 3% threshold by a very narrow margin.

Dora Bakoyannis’ liberal splinter from ND, DISY, did poorly. The climate is not very favourable, to say the least, to an economically liberal and otherwise centrist party. The overall political mood is, above all, overwhelmingly anti-austerity. Yet, DISY and other new liberal parties (Drasi and Recreate Greece) won results which are not all that awful for such parties in this anti-austerity climate. It likely took votes from a small minority of more liberal and pro-European centre-right voters exasperated by ND’s waffling.

Geographic Analysis

A geographic analysis of this election proves quite interesting. The map gives a superficial appearance of a ND landslide, but its results are hardly exceptional, even in its strongholds. It broke 30% in only three constituencies, two in the very conservative southern Peloponnesus and one in Macedonia. It did especially poorly in urban areas, including major cities such as Athens, Thessaloniki and Piraeus where the party had been fairly strong.

It is far more to look at the patterns of support for the ‘new’ parties such as SYRIZA, ANEL or Golden Dawn but also the remnants of PASOK’s support. SYRIZA dominated Attica (Athens, Piraeus and its suburbs) and the traditionally left-leaning Euboea, but also did well in the northern metropolis of Thessaloniki (though ND won the city proper, SYRIZA won its suburbs). It expanded its traditionally urban base of support into the bulk of Athens and the Piraeus, where it had not been particularly strong in the past. This year, SYRIZA and KKE often placed first and second in many working-class areas of Attica.

A sure sign of SYRIZA’s appeal to former PASOK voters is that its support elsewhere is fairly reflective of traditional Socialist bases: Crete, the Ionian Islands, the predominantly Pomak Xanthi prefecture in western Thrace and Achaias, the birthplace of the Papandreou dynasty and an historic PASOK stronghold.

PASOK lost heavily across the board, first and foremost in its old strongholds, but also in urban areas. Throughout Attica, it was almost wiped off the map with results below 10% almost everywhere. Loses were probably particularly heavy in the working-class hinterland of Athens and the Piraeus which had voted PASOK in the past. For example, in Attica constituency (which excludes Athens, the Piraeus and their inner suburbs), PASOK had won 43% in 2009 (placing first, far ahead of ND which had won 29.5%). This year, PASOK placed sixth with 8.2%. In Piraeus’s 2nd constituency, where it won 44.3% in 2009, it also placed sixth this year with 8.1%.

PASOK won only four prefectures. It won all but one prefecture in Crete and took Rhodopis, a largely Muslim area of western Thrace. Though one could surmise that PASOK lost heavily in left-leaning areas but held on best in strongholds like Crete whose Socialist tradition is more of an older Venizelist-centrist tradition, the Socialists actually suffered most of their heaviest loses in Crete.

ANEL’s patterns are pretty interesting. They did quite well in Attica (except Athens proper) but also in traditionally conservative Macedonia, a region where ANEL’s nationalist and populist rhetoric probably found some very fertile ground. However, it did poorly in the conservative heartlands of the southern Peloponnesus. Somehow, it won 17.8% of the vote in the Dodecanese, including much higher results in some small islands.

The KKE’s map would be rather un-noteworthy had it not been for the fact that it actually won a constituency – Samos. In this particular case, the KKE dominated on the island of Ikarias (with no less than 41%!) – a well-known ‘red island’ where many communists from the Greek Civil War were exiled.

XA’s map would be interesting to analyse further, but I always get excited by analysing the maps of new or unusual political movements which are otherwise hard to quantify and visualize geographically. XA did best in Corinthia with 12%, including 13% in the city of Corinth itself, nowadays a more downtrodden working-class area in proximity to Athens. XA was also particularly strong in Attica, especially the Piraeus area, Athens and Attica constituency. I haven’t taken the analysis down to a micro level, but it appears as if XA’s results in Athenian working-class hinterland were fairly weak compared to neighboring results. It would appear as if they did best in slightly more exurban areas of Attica including Megara (14%).

Attica, which is Greece’s leading urbanized region, also concentrates most immigrants. Thus, anti-immigration sentiment has usually run higher in Attica than in other parts of the country. XA also did well in central Macedonia, a conservative region which usually combines some anti-immigrant feelings with a strong nationalist tradition, fed by the proximity with the Republic of Macedonia (FYROM). It did badly in Crete and generally poorly in the Aegean Sea islands (but surprisingly well in the Ionian Islands).

Government Formation

The most likely result of this election is… another election. At final count, ND and PASOK combined – the two traditional parties – won a puny 32% of the vote, down from 77% in 2009. Because of the rigged system, seatwise they combine to 49.7% of the 300 members – or 149 out of 300, two short of an absolute majority. Despite their historical enmity, ND and PASOK remained the most viable and likeliest outcome of this election. Both parties are pro-austerity, generally supportive of the bailout conditions and support continued membership in the Eurozone. They are also, for the EU-IMF, the only acceptable parties.

However, ND and PASOK combined fell just short of an absolute majority. While even an absolute majority for these two parties would have been tumultuous, rocky and unpopular to say the least, it would have guaranteed a more or less acceptable government for the EU-IMF and, domestically, prolonged the status-quo (austerity, bailouts and hanging on to the Euro). Samaras pretended that he only wanted an absolute majority, but after the election it appears as if he would have endorsed a coalition with PASOK if it had been possible.

Plan B if ND-PASOK failed was a coalition extended to DIMAR, the most moderate of the other parties and the one most amenable to working with the traditional parties. However, DIMAR quickly turned down a coalition with the two biggies, probably reading the tea leaves and correctly inferring that participation in such a government might have been fatal to the fairly nascent party.
Short of that, none of the other parties were even remotely amenable to working with ND or PASOK. That is how deep the gap between the two traditional parties and the other parties is. ANEL didn’t even want to talk with ND, branding them traitors. KKE and XA were not even on the table.

The other potential option would be an anti-austerity coalition, which would be received with clear hostility in Berlin and Washington, but perhaps with much more popularity at home. The seat bonus given to ND means that such a coalition would either need to include all parties other than ND or PASOK – yes, including the Nazis and the Stalinists; or it would need to include one of the two traditional parties. Hardly realistic, and besides, the problem with such a coalition is that it would be even more disparate than a ND-PASOK coalition. SYRIZA could lead it, but who would it ally with? ANEL and DIMAR apparently agreed to govern with SYRIZA, but such an option would lack a majority. KKE, of course, entertains its vivid hatred of SYRIZA and, at the end of the day, probably wants actual political power as much as it wants the plague. XA, finally, is too toxic to be included in any coalition and even being propped up by their external support is a big no-no for a self-respecting party.

Samaras quickly concluded his exploratory mission to form a government with a failure. Tsipras was called upon next and has apparently decided to use up the three days of his exploratory mission to lay the groundwork for a snap election (in June, probably) which remains the most likely outcome of this whole process.

Formally, when Tsipras gives up his mandate to form a government, the leader of PASOK Evangelos Venizelos will receive an exploratory mandate which lasts another three days, and he too will most likely fail to reach a deal. Apparently he will ask Kouvelis, the leader of DIMAR, to be Prime Minister in a ND-PASOK-DIMAR cabinet, which is unlikely to see light of day in such format. Following this process, the President will convene all party leaders in a last attempt to get them to form a government, a process likely to end in failure. The President will then be responsible for immediately calling snap elections, which would be administered either by an all-party interim cabinet or by a technical government led by a chief justice of one of the country’s three Supreme Courts.

Given that there will most likely be another election within the next two months, what would be the most likely result? From a non-electoral standpoint, it would likely breed chaos and panic on financial markets. The markets have already responded unfavourably (obviously) to the election results, there would likely be a fit of panic when it becomes clear that Greece cannot form a government and will be returning to the polls for another election which is up in the air. Speculation about an imminent default or withdrawal from the Eurozone would ensue. From an electoral standpoint, it is unlikely that elections held so quickly after these elections will see dramatic changes. However, Tsipras will enter the contest with momentum coming from his party’s excellent result and will be in a position to continue sucking votes from PASOK and DIMAR, to the point where SYRIZA could potentially emerge as the largest party in Parliament – and probably get the 50 seat bonus. By using his three day exploratory mandate to meet with trade unions and extra-parliamentary parties such as the Greens, it is clear that he is laying the groundwork for a quick campaign aimed at winning the snap elections.

Such a result would be an unmitigated nightmare and disaster for Berlin, the EU and the IMF as it would mean that the pro-austerity and pro-bailout forces would certainly lack the seats to form government while Tsipras would be in a strong position to form a more cohesive anti-austerity cabinet, but once again it would depend on the relative strength of the other anti-austerity forces and their attitudes towards cabinet participation.   At any rate, Greece’s economic, social and political future looks extremely bleak.

Posted on May 9, 2012, in Greece. Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. Sorry for a small instance of flippancy about a a country in desperate straits, but I could not help notiing that ” a party like the KKE, which is very archaic in everything its does,” only got 6,7 % in the Arkadias constituency.

  2. Three points;
    One, Syriza cannot get the 50 seat bonus even if it gets the most votes. The law is strictly aimed to hamper all coalition parties.
    Two, in response to KABerg, KKE got 6,7 % in Arkadia and in other constituencies because its voters are mainly people who have a history with the party. Either they had relatives fighting in the civil war, or unionized in some labor-intensive industry. Arkadia was always a right-leaning stronghold, with an intriguing past in regard to the civil war. KKE is mostly based around labor unions and traditional voters, much like the communist parties of the eastern block, like Russia.
    Thirdly, being Greek and having first hand experience of Greek politics I have to raise my concern regarding the mention of a civil war in Greece to be ridiculous. Unfortunately, Greece is already in civil unrest between vying factions. All political, economical and sociological background required for a war to occur, exists in Greece. All that remains is for two opposing political poles to be created.

  3. Poor Greece, it is really hard to imagine how they will get out of this nightmare… Of course, the downfall of the two major parties is absolutely deserved, and we can still hope that European leaders will finally realize that austerity doesn’t work.

    Anyways, good job covering this vote too. From a purely political-junkie perspective, those results are quite interesting and the perspective of another election in June is, too. :P

  4. Leftists should occupy the 71 illegitimate seats, by which I mean the 50 bonus seats won by ND and the 21 XA seats.

  5. I’d say this election is more like 1994 Venezuela on speed than like the Weimar Republic. A lot of new parties on the right and left won huge and the traditional “left” and right were humbled. A national unity government was formed and failed, leading to the utter gutting of the political establishment in 1998, when Hugo Chavez came from behind to win a landslide and politics became polarized between the Bolivarian left on one hand, and a heterogenous coalition consisting of the rest of the ‘left”, the Venezuelan new right, and the castrated old guard parties. A new election is almost certain, and I can see a leftist government emerging from the next election. Maybe Syriza + DIMAR + PASOK dissidents. ANEL is too socially conservative, KKE is too Stalinist, and XA will never be a viable coalition partner for anyone. Tsipras’ election as PM becomes the left’s most important victory since 1998.

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